Die trying, p.38
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       Die Trying, p.38

         Part #2 of Jack Reacher series by Lee Child
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Chapter Thirty-Eight

  "WE'RE GETTING NO reaction," Fowler said. "Makes us wonder why. "

  Reacher shrugged at him. They were in the command hut. Stevie had dragged him through the trees to the Bastion, and then Fowler had dragged him back again with two armed guards. The punishment hut was unavailable. Still occupied by Joseph Ray. They used the command hut instead. They sat Reacher down and Fowler locked his left wrist to the arm of the chair with a handcuff. The guards took up position on either side, rifles sloped, watchful. Then Fowler walked up to join Borken and Stevie for the ceremony on the parade ground. Reacher heard faint shouting and cheering in the distance as the proclamation was read out. Then he heard nothing. Ninety minutes later, Fowler came back to the hut alone. He sat down behind Borken's desk and lit a cigarette, and the armed guards remained standing.

  "We faxed it an hour ago," Fowler said. "No reaction. "

  Reacher smelled his smoke and gazed at the banners on the walls. Dark reds and dull whites, vivid crooked symbols in black.

  "Do you know why we're getting no reaction?" Fowler asked.

  Reacher just shook his head.

  "You know what I think?" Fowler said. "They cut the line. Phone company is colluding with the federal agents. We were told it would happen at seven-thirty. It obviously happened earlier. "

  Reacher shrugged again. Made no reply.

  "We would expect to be informed about a thing like that," Fowler said.

  He picked up his Glock, and propped it in front of him, butt on the desktop, swiveling it like naval artillery left and right.

  "And we haven't been," he said.

  "Maybe your pal from Chicago has given you up," Reacher said.

  Fowler shook his head. His Glock came to rest, aimed at Reacher's chest.

  "We've been getting a stream of intelligence," he said. "We know where they are, how many of them there are, what their intentions are. But now, when we still need information, we aren't getting it. Communication has been interrupted. "

  Reacher said nothing.

  "We're investigating," Fowler said. "We're checking the radio right now. "

  Reacher said nothing.

  "Anything you want to tell us about the radio?" Fowler asked.

  "What radio?" Reacher said.

  "It worked OK yesterday," Fowler said. "Now it doesn't work at all, and you were wandering around all night. "

  He ducked down and rolled open the drawer where Borken kept the Colt Marshal. But he didn't come out with a revolver. He came out with a small black radio transmitter.

  "This was Jackson's," he said. "He was most anxious to show us where it was hidden. In fact he was begging to show us. He screamed and cried and begged. Just about tore his fingernails off digging it up, he was so anxious. "

  He smiled and put the unit carefully in his pocket.

  "We figure we just switch it on," he said. "That should put us straight through to the federal scum, person to person. This stage of the process, we need to talk direct. See if we can persuade them to restore our fax line. "

  "Terrific plan," Reacher said.

  "The fax line is important, you see," Fowler said. "Vital. The world must be allowed to know what we're doing here. The world must be allowed to watch and witness. History is being made here. You understand that, right?"

  Reacher stared at the wall.

  "They've got cameras, you know," Fowler said. "Surveillance planes are up there right now. Now it's daylight again, they can see what we're doing. So how can we exploit that fact?"

  Reacher shook his head.

  "You can leave me out of it," he said.

  Fowler smiled.

  "Of course we'll leave you out of it," he said. "Why would they care about seeing you nailed to a tree? You're nothing but a piece of shit, to us and to them. But Holly Johnson, there's a different story. Maybe we'll call them up on their own little transmitter and tell them to watch us do it with their own spy cameras. That might make them think about it. They might trade a fax line for her left breast. "

  He ground out his cigarette. Leaned forward. Spoke quietly.

  "We're serious here, Reacher," he said. "You saw what we did to Jackson. We could do that to her. We could do that to you. We need to be able to communicate with the world. We need that fax line. So we need the shortwave to confirm what the hell they've done with it. We need those things very badly. You understand that, right? So if you want to avoid a lot of unnecessary pain, for you and for her, you better tell me what you did to the radio. "

  Reacher was twisted around, looking at the bookcase. Trying to recall the details of the inexpert translations of the Japanese Pearl Harbor texts he'd read.

  "Tell me now," Fowler said softly. "I can keep them away from you and from her. No pain for either of you. Otherwise, nothing I can do about it. "

  He laid his Glock on the desk.

  "You want a cigarette?" he asked.

  He held out the pack. Smiled. The good cop. The friend. The ally. The protector. The oldest routine in the book. Requiring the oldest response. Reacher glanced around. Two guards, one on each side of him, the right-hand guard nearer, the left-hand guard back almost against the side wall. Rifles held easy in the crook of their arms. Fowler behind the desk, holding out the pack. Reacher shrugged and nodded. Took a cigarette with his free right hand. He hadn't smoked in ten years, but when somebody offers you a lethal weapon, you take it.

  "So tell me," Fowler said. "And be quick. "

  He thumbed his lighter and held it out. Reacher bent forward and lit his cigarette from the flame. Took a deep draw and leaned back. The smoke felt good. Ten years, and he still enjoyed it. He inhaled deeply and took another lungful.

  "How did you disable our radio?" Fowler asked.

  Reacher took a third pull. Trickled the smoke out of his nose and held the cigarette like a sentry does, between the thumb and forefinger, palm hooded around it. Take quick deep pulls, and the coal on the end of a cigarette heats up to a couple of thousand degrees. Lengthens to a point. He rotated his palm, like he was studying the glowing tip while he thought about something, until the cigarette was pointing straight forward like an arrow.

  "How did you disable our radio?" Fowler asked again.

  "You'll hurt Holly if I don't tell you?" Reacher asked back.

  Fowler nodded. Smiled his lipless smile.

  "That's a promise," he said. "I'll hurt her so bad, she'll be begging to die. "

  Reacher shrugged unhappily. Sketched a listen-up gesture. Fowler nodded and shuffled on his chair and leaned close. Reacher snapped forward and jammed the cigarette into his eye. Fowler screamed and Reacher was on his feet, the chair cuffed to his wrist clattering after him. He wind-milled right and the chair swung through a wide arc and smashed against the nearer guard's head. It splintered and jerked away as Reacher danced to his left. He caught the farther guard with a forearm smash to the throat as his rifle came up. Snapped back and hit Fowler with the wreckage of the chair. Used the follow-through momentum to swing back to the first guard. Finished him with an elbow to the head. The guy went down. Reacher grabbed his rifle by the barrel and swung straight back at the other guard. Felt skull bones explode under the butt. He dropped the rifle and spun and smashed the chair to pieces against Fowler's shoulders. Grabbed him by the ears and smashed his face into the desktop, once, twice, three times. Took a leg from the broken chair and jammed it crossways under his throat. Folded his elbows around each exposed end and locked his hands together. Tested his grip and bunched his shoulders. Jerked hard, once, and broke Fowler's neck against the chair leg with a single loud crunch.

  He took both rifles and the Glock and the handcuff key. Out the door and around to the back of the hut. Straight into the trees. He put the Glock in his pocket. Took the handcuff off his wrist. Put a rifle in each hand. Breathing hard. He was in pain. Swinging the heavy wooden chair had opened the red weal on his wrist into a wound. He ra
ised it to his mouth and sucked at it and buttoned the cuff of his shirt over it.

  Then he heard a helicopter. The faint bass thumping of a heavy twin-rotor machine, a Boeing, a Sea Knight or a Chinook, far to the southeast. He thought: last night Borken talked about eight Marines. They've only got eight Marines, he said. The Marines use Sea Knights. He thought: they're going for a frontal assault. Holly's paneled walls flashed into his mind and he set off racing through the trees.

  He got as far as the Bastion. The thumping from the air built louder. He risked stepping out onto the stony path. It was a Chinook. Not a Sea Knight. Search-and-rescue markings, not Marine Corps. It was following the road up from the southeast, a mile away, a hundred feet up, using its vicious downdraft to part the surrounding foliage and aid its search. It looked slow and ponderous, hanging nose down in the air, yawing slightly from side to side as it approached. Reacher guessed it must be pretty close to the town of Yorke itself.

  Then he glanced into the clearing and saw a guy, fifty yards away. A grunt, camouflage fatigues. A Stinger on his shoulder. Turning and aiming through the crude open sight. He saw him acquire the target. The guy steadied himself and stood with his feet apart. His hand fumbled for the activator. The missile's infrared sensor turned on. Reacher waited for the IFF to shut it down. It didn't happen. The missile started squealing its high-pitched tone. It was locked on the heat from the Chinook's engines. The guy's finger tightened on the trigger.

  Reacher dropped the rifle in his left hand. Swung the other one up and clicked the safety off with his thumb as he did so. Stepped to his left and leaned his shoulder on a tree. Aimed at the guy's head and fired.

  But the guy fired first. A fraction of a second before Reacher's bullet killed him, he pulled the Stinger's trigger. Two things happened. The Stinger's rocket motor lit up. It exploded along its launch tube. Then the guy was hit in the head. The impact knocked him sideways. The launcher caught the rear of the missile and flipped it. It came out and stalled tail down in the air like a javelin, cushioned on the thrust of its launch, virtually motionless.

  Then it corrected itself. Reacher watched in horror as it did exactly what it was designed to do. Its eight little wings popped out. It hung almost vertical until it acquired the helicopter again. Then its second-stage rocket lit up and it blasted into the sky. Before the guy's body hit the ground, it was homing in on the Chinook at a thousand miles an hour.

  The Chinook was lumbering steadily northwest. A mile away. Following the road. The road ran straight up through the town. Between the abandoned buildings. On the southeast corner the first building it passed was the courthouse. The Chinook was closing on it at eighty miles an hour. The Stinger was heading in to meet it at a thousand miles an hour.

  One mile at a thousand miles an hour. One thousandth of an hour. A fraction over three and a half seconds. It felt like a lifetime to Reacher. He watched the missile all the way. A wonderful, brutal weapon. A simple, unshakable purpose. Designed to recognize the exact heat signature of aircraft exhaust, designed to follow it until it either got there or ran out of fuel. A simple three-and-a-half-second mission.

  The Chinook pilot saw it early. He wasted the first second of its flight, frozen. Not in horror, not in fear, just in simple disbelief that a heat-seeking missile had been fired at him from a small wooded clearing in Montana. Then his instinct and training took over. Evade and avoid. Evade the missile, avoid crashing on settlements below. Reacher saw him throw the nose down and the tail up. The big Chinook wheeled away and spewed a wide fan of exhaust into the atmosphere. Then the tail flipped the other way, engines screaming, superheated fumes spraying another random arc. The missile patiently followed the first curve. Tightened its radius. The Chinook dropped slowly and then rose violently in the air. Spiraled upward and away from the town. The missile turned and followed the second arc. Arrived at where the heat had been a split second before. Couldn't find it. It turned a full lazy circle right underneath the helicopter. Caught an echo of the new maneuver and set about climbing a relentless new spiral.

  The pilot won an extra second, but that was all. The Stinger caught him right at the top of his desperate climb. It followed the trail of heat all the way into the starboard engine itself. Exploded hard against the exhaust nacelle.

  Six and a half pounds of high explosive against ten tons of aircraft, but the explosive always wins. Reacher saw the starboard engine disintegrate, then the rear rotor housing blow off. Shattered fragments of the drivetrain exploded outward like shrapnel and the rotor detached and spun away in terrible slow motion. The Chinook stalled in the air and fell, tail down, checked only by the screaming forward rotor, and slowly spun to the earth, like a holed ship slips slowly below the sea.

  HOLLY HEARD THE helicopter. She heard the low-frequency beat pulsing faintly through her walls. She heard it grow louder. Then she heard the explosion and the shriek of the forward rotor grabbing the air. Then she heard nothing.

  She jammed her elbow into her crutch and limped across to the diagonal partition. The prison room was completely empty except for the mattress. So her search was going to have to start again in the bathroom.

  "ONLY ONE QUESTION,"Webster said. "How long can we keep the lid on this?"

  General Johnson said nothing in reply. Neither did his aide. Webster moved his gaze across to Garber. Garber was looking grim.

  "Not too damn long," he said.

  "But how long?" Webster asked. "A day? An hour?"

  "Six hours," Garber said.

  "Why?" McGrath asked.

  "Standard procedure," Garber said. "They'll investigate the crash, obviously. Normally they'd send another chopper out. But not if there's a suspicion of ground fire. So they'll come by road from Malmstrom. Six hours. "

  Webster nodded. Turned to Johnson.

  "Can you delay them, General?" he asked.

  Johnson shook his head.

  "Not really," he said. His voice was low and resigned. "They just lost a Chinook. Crew of two. I can't call them and say, do me a favor, don't investigate that. I could try, I guess, and they might agree at first, but it would leak, and then we'd be back where we started. Might gain us an hour. "

  Webster nodded.

  "Seven hours, six hours, what's the difference?" he said.

  Nobody replied.

  "We've got to move now," McGrath said. "Forget the White House. We can't wait any longer. We need to do something right now, people. Six hours from now, the whole situation blows right out of control. We'll lose her. "

  Six hours is three hundred and sixty minutes. They wasted the first two sitting in silence. Johnson stared into space. Webster drummed his fingers on the table. Garber stared at McGrath, a wry expression on his face. McGrath was staring at the map. Milosevic and Brogan were standing in the silence, holding the brown bags of breakfast and the Styrofoam cups.

  "Coffee here, anybody wants it," Brogan said.

  Garber waved him over.

  "Eat and plan," he said.

  "Map," Johnson said.

  McGrath slid the map across the table. They all sat forward. Back in motion. Three hundred and fifty-eight minutes to go.

  "Ravine's about four miles north of us," the aide said. "All we got is eight Marines in a LAV- 25. "

  "That tank thing?" McGrath asked.

  The aide shook his head.

  "Light armored vehicle," he said. "LAV. Eight wheels, no tracks. "

  "Bulletproof?" Webster asked.

  "For sure," the aide said. "They can drive it all the way to Yorke. "

  "If it gets through the ravine," Garber said.

  Johnson nodded.

  "That's the big question," he said. "We need to go take a look. "

  THE LIGHT ARMORED vehicle looked just like a tank to McGrath's hasty civilian glance, except there were eight wheels on it instead of tracks. The hull was welded up out of brutal sloping armor plates and there was a turret with
a gun. The driver sat forward, and the commander sat in the turret. In the rear, two rows of three Marines sat back to back, facing weapon ports. Each port had its own periscope. McGrath could visualize the vehicle rumbling into battle, invulnerable, weapons bristling out of those ports. Down into the ravine, up the other side, along the road to Yorke to the courthouse. He pulled Webster to one side and spoke urgently.

  "We never told them," he said. "About the dynamite in the walls. "

  "And we're not going to," Webster said quietly. "The old guy would freak out. He's close to falling apart right now. I'm going to tell the Marines direct. They're going in there. They'll have to deal with it. Makes no difference if Johnson knows in advance or not. "

  McGrath intercepted Johnson and Webster ran over to the armored vehicle. McGrath saw the Marine commander leaning down from the turret. Saw him nodding and grimacing as Webster spoke. Then the General's aide fired up the Army Chevrolet. Johnson and Garber crammed into the front with him. McGrath jumped in back. Brogan and Milosevic crushed in alongside him.

  Webster finished up and raced back to the Chevy. Squeezed in next to Milosevic. The LAV fired up its big diesel with a blast of black smoke. Then it crunched into gear and lumbered off north. The Chevy accelerated in its wake.

  FOUR MILES NORTH, they crested a slight rise and entered a curve. Slowed and jammed to a stop in the lee of a craggy outcrop. The Marine commander vaulted down from the turret and ran north on the road. Webster and Johnson and McGrath got out and hurried after him. They paused together in the lee of the rock face and crept around the curve. Stared out and down into the ravine. It was an intimidating sight.

  It ran left to right in front of them, more or less straight. And it was not just a trench. It was a trench and a step. The whole crust of the earth had fractured, and the southern plate had fallen below the level of the northern plate. Like adjacent sections of an old concrete highway, where a car thumps up an inch at the seam. Expanded to geological size, that inch was a fifty-foot disparity.

  Where the earth had fractured and fallen, the edges had broken up into giant boulders. The scouring of the glaciers had tumbled those boulders south. The ice and the heave and the weather over a million years had raked out the fracture and turned it into a trench. It had cut back the rock plates to where they became solid again. Some places, it had carved a hundred-yard width. Other places, tougher seams of rock had kept the gap down to twenty yards.

  Then the roots of a thousand generations of trees and the frozen water of the winters had eroded the edges until there was a steep ragged descent to the bottom and a steep ragged rise back up the northern side to the top, fifty feet higher than the starting point. There were stunted trees and tangled undergrowth and rock slides. The road itself was lifted progressively on concrete trestles and rose gently across a bridge. Then more concrete trestles set it down on the level ground to the north and it snaked away through the forest into the mountains.

  But the bridge was blown. Charges had been exploded against the two center trestles. A twenty-foot section of the center span had fallen a hundred feet into the trench. The four men in the lee of the outcrop could see fragments of the road lying shattered in the bottom of the ravine.

  "What do you think?" Johnson asked urgently.

  The Marine commander was giving it a fast sweep through his field glasses. Left and right, up and down, examining the exact terrain.

  "I think it's shit, sir," he said.

  "Can you get through?" Johnson asked him.

  The guy lowered his field glasses and shook his head.

  "Not a hope in hell," he said.

  He stepped across shoulder to shoulder with the General, so Johnson could share the same line of sight. Started talking rapidly and pointing as he did so.

  "We could get down to the bottom," he said. "We could go in right there, where the rock slide gives us a reasonable descent. But getting up the other side is the problem, sir. The LAV can't climb much more than forty-five degrees. Most of the north face looks a lot steeper than that. Some places, it's near enough vertical. Any gentle slopes are overgrown. And they've felled trees. See there, sir?"

  He pointed to a wooded area on the slope opposite. Trees had been felled and left lying with their chopped ends facing south.

  "Abatises," the Marine said. "The vehicle is going to stall against them. No doubt about that. Coming uphill, slowly, those things would stop a tank. We go in there, we'll be trapped in the ditch, no doubt at all. "

  "So what the hell do we do?" Johnson said.

  The Marine officer shrugged.

  "Bring me some engineers," he said. "The gap they blew is only about twenty feet wide. We can bridge that. "

  "How long will that take?" Webster asked.

  The Marine shrugged again.

  "All the way up here?" he said. "Six hours? Maybe eight?"

  "Way too long," Webster said.

  Then the radio receiver in McGrath's pocket started crackling.

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